Friday, May 18, 2012

Weekend Reading: The Work-Life Balance Edition

I feel sure I've had a "work-life balance" edition of weekend links before, but I'm too lazy to either find out or come up with a new name. And I have a whole bevy of links on the topic this week!

First up, Andie Fox, who writes the Blue Milk blog had a great article in Daily Life about work-life balance and Sheryl Sandberg leaving work at 5:30 for dinner with her kids. And then she posted a follow up on her blog about an awesome reaction one boss had to it.

Sheryl Sandberg's work schedule seems to be irresistible blog and article fodder, really. Cal Newport at Study Hacks also posted about her schedule, but he takes a different lesson from it, and argues that it is an example of using a fixed schedule to increase productivity. (If you don't know about fixed schedules and productivity, he explains more about them in a different article.)

Reading these two articles and their comments made me think two things:

1. Why must some commenter always come along and argue that Ms. Sandberg is surely putting in more hours at night? I'm sure she does sometimes, but I suspect if she did it as part of her regular schedule, she'd have said so. And so what if she does? It doesn't really detract from her original message. I don't have any evidence to back me up, but I wonder whether people always try to poke this particular hole in the story because the idea that someone could be as successful as Sandberg is while working a more sane schedule than theirs makes them feel inadequate or threatened, and so they try to tear her down. Personally, I'd rather try to learn from her techniques.

2. The two articles both argue for similar changes in behavior and work place expectations, but from different perspectives. I agree with the arguments in both of those articles, but, the awesome boss in the Blue Milk post aside, I think the productivity argument is more likely to carry the day in the work place. And it neatly sidesteps those tiresome arguments about how parents are slacking off and taking advantage of the workers who don't have kids and therefore "don't get to" leave early or what not. For any new readers- I've explained my opinion on this before, but in nutshell, I think everyone deserves a life outside work, and if parents are the ones who seem to be "getting" it, it is actually that we are taking it, because we have something that is worth risking the career repercussions for, namely our kids.

With that said, though, people seem to really struggle with the idea of fixed schedule productivity- see, for instance, a recent article from Leslie Perlow at the Harvard Business School, which describes the resistance to the idea of not being always "on" and a way to overcome it. For some reason, academics seems to struggle with this even more than most. The science-blogosophere was discussing work-life balance recently, spurred on by another round of ridiculous comments someone made on the subject. I found the discussion via Dr. O's post on the subject. Prof-life substance makes some good points in his post- although I don't think of it as dropping balls, I do agree that the key to "balance" is recognizing that you'll have to make compromises, and trying to find the compromises that will let you get to all of end goals you want (e.g., doing a good job raising kids, having a satisfying career....) Regardless, his refutation of this particular round of spectacularly bad advice is pretty funny.

Drug Monkey also has a good post about how to have a life while having a career (hint: don't be willing to sacrifice everything else in your life to your career.

I think it is great that there are male scientists who are blogging about these things now. It would be even more great if there wasn't such a double standard for men and women on this topic, but since I suspect that the only way to kill that double standard is to normalize the idea of everyone having a life outside the lab.... I'm glad there are men willing to speak up on this. (But do you think we'd all be talking about it if instead of Sheryl Sandberg saying she leaves work at 5:30 to have dinner with her kids, Mark Zuckerberg said he leaves at 5:30 to go surf or do something like that? I doubt it, but I'd be happy to be wrong about that.)

Female Science Professor had the funniest work-life balance posts, though- she looked at the images used to illustrate the concept and then made some better ones.

A lot of the blogs and sites I read focus on making space for the "life" side of the work-life balance equation, but it is worth reminding ourselves that the "work" side is important, too. Different people want different things- and given how sensitive everyone is on this topic right now, I feel I need to make it clear that if your personal ideal for work-life balance is to put paid work aside for awhile, that's great and if you're happy with the arrangement, I'm happy for you. But for a long time, women, and mothers in particular, were encouraged to put aside any dreams they had for work outside the home in favor of other people's dreams, and that wasn't always a happy arrangement for them. Along those lines, Cali Williams Yost had a beautiful tribute to her mother, and how her mother taught her to dream. I found it via Laura Vandkerkam's twitter feed.

So... lots of links this week. Let me know what you think in the comments!


  1. Maybe I'm too cynical but I:
    1) am tired of hearing about Sheryl Sandberg's schedule, already.
    2) don't think it's applicable to folks who are not at the C-level and still have upward ambition

    I attended a talk several years ago at my company's Womens' Conference with a panel discussion of execs talking about balance. One of them was a VP, and talked about how she left at 5 to pick up her kids, get dinner, etc. Great, but in my mind, she had already "arrived" and had "earned" the right to saunter out of there at whatever time she wanted because she had a whole freakin' DIVISION of people to do the work she was responsible for.

    I'm not saying it's impossible to define your schedule and still be fulfilled in your career (clearly many of us are doing that) but I do think it's unrealistic for those of us individual contributors and first line managers to think we too can do what Sheryl is doing and become COO someday.

    My guess is that leaving at 5pm comes after YEARS of her putting in crazy, crazy hours and sacrificing a lot.

    1. She's said she's been doing it since Google, I think.

      But yes, enough with her schedule already!

      One of my ambitions is to some day prove that I can be not just COO, but CEO, with a reasonable schedule. We'll see if I get to do that! I do think it is doable, particularly if you can control the company culture (for instance, if you are a founder).

    2. Yay, I hope this happens for you. Yes, I think when you start your own company you can build the culture you want, and that is very appealing.

  2. Anonymous3:22 AM

    Very awesome links. I think DH already reads Cal Newport's blog because the name sure looks familiar, but I hadn't seen it before.

    Now that it's the summer and I'm not inundated with teaching and people dropping by all the time it's so much easier to get into one of those flexible productive schedules and knock off after 8 hours. (Though I seem to punt about one day a week... I should probably work that into the schedule somehow too... 6 days a week with two of them half days is probably more realistic than 5 days a week full. Perhaps I should be better at leechblocking the interesting internet sites other than just the blog and cnn during the day.)

    1. His blog has some good ideas. I think I found it via someone on Twitter.

  3. Cali Williams Yost's tribute to her mom brought tears to my eyes, especially the part about her mother's biggest regret: "Her intellect was legendary. In high school, she received a scholarship to an Ivy League school but turned it down to follow her boyfriend, who had gone to another college." Oh, wow. I'll be sharing that with my own children. Thanks, @Cloud.

    1. You're welcome! I'd say times have really changed, but... when I went off to the Univ. of Chicago, someone asked me if I was going there to meet a rich husband. So maybe they haven't changed as much as we'd like to think.

    2. Wait, U of C is where one can meet a rich husband? Damn. ;)

      I think my dad also made reference to getting myself a husband at some point while i was still at Caltech and I nearly strangled him (because I had never worked so hard and had so little sleep in my life - that was the last thing on my mind...) Then again, it turns out it happened anyway :D

    3. Given the gender imbalance at Caltech, it would be difficult not to find someone... although...

    4. @n&m - exactly ;)

  4. @Anandi - I hear what you're saying about upwardly mobile at the C-level and I think you're generally right (although I do think that those of us who have jobs where we control our own schedules and nobody cares how many hours we work - that is where there is no correspondence between promotion and working X number of hours - can do exactly that. I have in my career, but I'm an academic which is quite a different kettle of fish than corporate America). At the same time, I'm interested in thinking through not only the realities (which you mention) but what I want to advocate for, which is "work-life balance" for all people. As Cloud says, I think Zuckerberg's love of surfing is really important too. People should have full lives, and our focus should be on that alongside of work life. But in the States we seem to have completely suborned our selves to work, probably because we have no job protections or social services, so we are completely at the mercy of the system, whose only goal is to get us working more and more hours. I think it *should* be possible for people to knock off at 5:30 and still be successful/ambitious - maybe not every night of one's whole career, but sometimes and not only once you're the boss. Think about those stories that came out recently about how few Americans take their (already scanty) vacation days. So sad! We as a culture do not advocate for our lives, our not-work selves.

    I have to say, too, that I think one significant factor in allowing me to be at home slightly more than the average American (besides being my own boss) is that I've always been able to live close to where I work so I've never had some kind of grueling 45 min - 1hr (or more) commute on top of a work day.

    1. Yeah, commute time can be huge. Although, I know some people who do useful things with long commutes (books on tape, language CDs, etc).

      I should say, I have no idea if Zuckerberg likes to surf. I was just making something up. But yes, we should all get to have lives outside work, kids or no.

      Personally, I always have, since early in grad school, when I had my "work limit" realization. My schedule was different, but my hours weren't really higher. Obviously, I have no idea where I'd be now if I worked ridiculous hours, but I don't feel like my career has suffered at all. I wish people focused on productivity and not hours!

    2. @Erin - I TOTALLY agree that there is a problem with our culture in this regard. I've had several friends LOSE vacation days because they just never took them and they had too many to carry over. Sigh. I'm always scrounging for days by the end of the year, though nowadays it's because having a toddler in preschool exhausts my sick days pretty quickly...

      Cloud, I am 100% sure at my position (working for The Man) that if I had remained full time and continued to work the 55-70 hour weeks I was putting in before kids, I'd be a lot higher up than I am now. I don't know if it's all tech companies, but certainly mine rewards long hours and volume of work over efficiency and just doing a great job at your actual job. Ie More is always Better. Sigh.

  5. I believe Zuckerberg's latest thing to do in his free time is killing animals... as in, he's on a diet fad where you can only eat meat if you kill it yourself. (Apparently this has cut his meat consumption down considerably.)

    1. That would slow my meat consumption down considerably, too!

  6. This is a great topic -- I'm going to blog about this soon; your productivity links are very interesting.
    You're right of course that Sheryl S is blogfood for many. And -- oh, i'm trying so hard -- but -- no -- ok, here it is. Sorry:

    Why Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg must resign, at

    Sex, War and Boardrooms: Sheryl Sandberg as a modern day Lysistrata, at

  7. Why is leaving at a set time to take care of kids different than people leaving at a set time to catch the vanpool? Coworkers of those that live far away so that they can have a larger home or a stay at home spouse don't get any benefit from the vanpool. However, the coworkers of parents will collect social security thanks to the tax-payers that we raise.

    Childless people are freeloading on social security just as people who work shorter hours are freeloading on others who stay later (assuming similar productivity--which is a big assumption).

    Let's just stop beating this dead horse.

  8. A very nice link collection...
    Although, amidst all the blogosphere activity on the subject, I must admit I have started suffering from severe work-life-balance-discussion fatigue. Sort of like FSP's cat.

  9. the milliner7:35 PM

    " I think everyone deserves a life outside work, and if parents are the ones who seem to be "getting" it, it is actually that we are taking it, because we have something that is worth risking the career repercussions for, namely our kids."

    Yes. This is EXACTLY it.

    And glad to know there is actually a term for what I've been doing more or less since DS was born: fixed schedule productivity. As you mention in your post, it's not to say that I don't have some nights or weeks where I'm doing extra time in the evenings to push through for a deadline. But I am certainly making sure to space those instances out significantly. And I also don't use that time just to catch up on e-mail. If I work in the evening it has to be because it's for a project that's important to me personally (which usually means it involves my creative role in my position) or that it's extremely important to our department/company (i.e. it would cause much, much more problems to wait to get it done in usual hours). There are not many times either issue has come up outside of work hours. And when it does, I know my time to work extra is very limited. I force the pace back down when I can feel it's going on too long.

    So far, this has worked very well for me. So I'm going to keep riding that wave as long as I can!


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